HAGERSTOWN – John Anderson and James Jones walk into their classroom at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, Maryland, wearing their jumpsuits and ready for another morning of work. But their jumpsuits are actually full-bodied, thick, white protective body suits with a mesh-like head cover, and their classroom is actually a yard, filled with thousands of bees buzzing around.
Two of the correctional officers, Cpl. Chuck Neikirk and Lt. Jeff Golden, who are known around the prison as “master beekeepers,” lead the new beekeeping program at MCTC. Neikirk said that the warden approached them about starting up a class after finding out that the two were beekeepers in their own personal time.
“The bees are such an integral part of the environment,” Neikirk said. “It’s essential for pollination. And without pollination, things just die.”
“I was ignorant about the bees,” Anderson said. “I was scared of them. They’re like spiders. They’re scary, but what most people don’t know is how important they are to the environment and the ecosystem.”
The program, which started back in August last year, received a gift of around 200,000 bees from the University of Maryland. The correctional officers teach the inmates how to become beekeepers, the environmental impact of the bees and how to process honey. The program harvested its first batch of honey – almost five gallons of it – back in August this year. According to Neikirk, some of the honey went to the prison’s kitchen while some of it went to food banks in Maryland.
But aside from teaching the inmates about maintaining the bee population, MCTC hopes that this program also teaches the inmates how to prepare for life after prison.
“I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen,” Gerard Shields, the spokesman for the Maryland Dept. of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said. “I remember one of the guards telling me that the inmates, he said, ‘The thing I’ve learned is that bees work in a society. They work together and they know their jobs. And we as a society should be doing the same things.”
As for Anderson and Jones, they are looking forward to using their new skills to get back on track once they’re released from the prison.
I wouldn’t mind having a hive in my backyard, teaching my son how to maintain them and to make honey,” Anderson said. “You can make some money with honey.”
“I know I wasn’t in a good path in my past life,” Jones said. “Me learning so much in Hagerstown is actually going to help me stay away from the streets and give me a new attitude on things.”